B is for book

How do you measure the true value of the book business? It’s a common enough question for which there is no common answer. Yet, with authors able to self-publish and academics wanting “open access” to articles published in learned journals, putting a value on what the trade brings to this work has become one of the abiding concerns of our time. If we can’t measure our worth, it may be lost—casually thrown away by those who believe, as internet commentator Clay Shirky argued, that publishing is now a “button”.

At The Bookseller we spend an inordinate amount of time assessing the value of individual titles that cross our path before publication, and then even more time tracking their worth once they land in bookshops. We look at the books, but also how they are published and sold. Our Books of the Year feature, and the newspaper reviews round-up, are a homage to all that, with titles such as Sapiens, H is for Hawk, The Bone Clocks, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, Us, Animalium and Squishy McFluff button-defying products of imagination and collaboration.

The literal value of all this effort is about £3.4bn annually—£1.4bn of which goes through bookshop tills. But to that we must add the rights income, the export sales, the TV programmes, the column inches, Hollywood blockbusters, and the scientific understanding, that emerge from these words carefully crafted into books and journals.

Value relationship

But money alone is not a good measure, either of the talent, effort, or the success. This is a cruel business where books written in six weeks can easily outsell books agonised over for many years. Instead we might look for the value in the people employed—from editors to reps, from booksellers to distributors—and the authors and other creatives who toil away, often in the margins. The value here is inexact but not ephemeral. Two weeks ago, author Andrew Keen told me that publishers didn’t realise how loathed they were by authors, but I’m not convinced of that. If authors really disliked publishers so much, more would have walked away by now. They haven’t. There is a loyalty there: a value relationship that is not simply defined by the contract.

The trade also plays a valuable societal role, from working to improve levels of literacy (in libraries and beyond), to releasing titles of wider cultural importance. Books are not just for Christmas, they are made for reading, but also for learning, and built to last.
Perhaps the value is hiding in plain sight. It is the books that do our talking: these packets of potential that explode— once opened—in our minds. Readers may not need to know how the books they absorb got into their hands, but as a trade we must not forget that the gate-keepers are also the value-makers. Happy Christmas!